Before I begin, the themes that I’ll be addressing are: power, gender, language, history and a little politics.
The epic fantasy book series George R.R Martin’s ‘A Song Of Ice & Fire’ is undoubtedly power-driven as is its adaptation, HBO’s Game Of Thrones. Nobody is safe. Even Sean Bean. He did not know the rules of the game. Ethics, morals and having a conscience are prohibited. In this game you must take no prisoners, have no weaknesses. If you don’t like the rules, you change the rules. Many characters have done this using any means necessary to get what they want. You must be ruthless and cunning. It is survival of the fittest. The only way to survive is through ruthless pragmatism. You must kill or be killed; hunt or be hunted. Prey on the weak using them to your own advantage.
“Know your strengths, use them wisely and one man can be worth ten thousand”
Petyr Baelish To Sansa Stark Approaching The Bloody Gate
Many characters have accumulated their power over a period of time. E.g. ‘Petyr Baelish & Varys. They are the spymasters of The Seven Kingdoms. One could say that they are based off Thomas Cromwell but a modern-day analogy would the media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch. I dread to think what Varys & Littlefinger would do if Westeros had access to modern-day technology like CCTV and laptops. It would be used to disastrous effect.
Martin plays off male stereotypes. The Mountain is big, bulky and a very masculine man. A very dominant character. The Hound, his younger brother is shorter but still very tall and bulky. When they were children, Gregor shoved Sandor’s face into a flame because he was playing with his toy. Gregor was born for violence and Martin uses the male stereotype of being “up for a fight” but amplifies it by one thousand. Ironically, Sandor is ugly from his burns from a childhood trauma yet he is more feminine. He is a killer but he saves Sansa from the rapers and from Joffery’s torment. Furthermore he saves Arya from the Brotherhood Without Banners and Lannister soldiers at crossroads inn. He didn’t do it for glory. He did it because it felt right and it was in his heart. This is a great contrast between his ugliness and having a conscience, something that most people ignore in Westeros. Most steer clear of The Hound due to his ugliness. They judge him on his face rather than his actions.
The series is run on incest, betrayal, intrigue, greed and gluttony with the occasional portrayal of love and humanity. There are no characters that are completely good or evil. They are all grey characters in the sense that they commit these evil deeds yet contrast them with good ones too. Good & Evil, Ice & Fire, Winter & Summer ,Wolves & Dragons. Martin contrasts these elements time and time again. The sigils of Stark and Targaryen are a direwolf and a dragon. The Starks represent the North which is covered with snow and ice where Targaryens are from Valyria which is hot and it’s where the first dragons came from. Winter Is Coming are the words of House Stark. Fire & Blood are the words of House Targaryen. I could go on and on about how Martin contrasts opposite elements but that would become quite wearisome.
Much a like the real world, power is distributed unequally. Highborns inherit their money and wealth from their parents much a like the rich business owners palming off their successful companies to their children when they die. The common folk suffer most due to the unfairness of an unjust society in Westeros.
“Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”
In modern society the common people suffer. The Joe Bloggs of our world suffer from war, poverty and disease. Innocents always die. Many could argue that this due to most of the world’s wealth belonging to the top 1% of society. We have the chief execs, CEOs, corporate big shots, politicians and even world leaders. Gender is a consistent issue amongst fans of the show and the books. Many claim that the series is sexist but I believe otherwise. To say that it is sexist is too vague a statement. It has sexist elements as in women can’t inherit; even if she is the eldest of her siblings. Her younger brother will inherit lands and titles.
This law is enforced throughout the land. Dorne is in the far south of Westeros and is exempt from is law as they have what they call “Dornish Law”. Girls are just as valued as boys and they don’t treat bastard-born children badly. The renowned late Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) says “bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne.” We all remember Oberyn’s epic demise in the episode titled The Mountain & The Viper. That moment will be etched on my mind until the day I die. He fathered eight bastards himself, who are known throughout the land as ‘The Sand Snakes’. Bastard born children are favoured in the same regard as legitimate children in Dorne. In the other six Kingdoms, modern society and in world history people begin to form questions when there is a bastard among the rich and wealthy. Scandal begins to rise and people begin forming their own stories.
The gender theorist, Deborah Tannen says that women like to rapport which means establish relationships and men like to report (give information). Game Of Thrones contradicts this theory. Many of the lead female protagonists establish masculine attitudes. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is the Queen in the first season (A Game Of Thrones) and is married to King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy).
Robert Baratheon “Quiet woman”
Cersei Lannister: “I took you for a king. He attacked my brother. I should wear the armour and you the gown”
(Robert Slaps Her)
This displays how acceptable it is in this society to hit women. Westerosi society mirrors medieval society in the sense that women have near to know rights but then again it shows women to be intelligent and overflowing with character. You could argue the male treatment of women is reflected modern culture in some places around the world like the Middle East amongst religious practices like Islam.
There are still lapses in women’s rights today in places in the world like Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking her mind on women’s rights on education. She was telling hard truths. I believe that most people would rather deny hard truths than face them.
“A women’s identity is submerged in the English language / women more tentative in speech, more hedges, fillers”
There are few uses of fillers in women’s language in the books and the show. They are very sure of what they are saying and uncertainty and in this world what you say can get you killed. Every choice that is made by each character, male or female has the power to destroy them. The term “karma” can be applied. The women’s language in this series is just as harsh as men’s is. They use an abundance of harsh expletives with characters like Asha Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) dropping the C-Bomb. The show and the books have no shortage of profanities. It makes Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm Tucker (The Thick Of It) look tame.
I believe that 21st century western society enjoys using profane language. Rather than using fillers such as “erm and um”, we use words like “fuck, shit and cunt to express our grievances with things we do not like. Swear words are just as common in day-to-day speech as saying yes, no, please and thank you. Archaic lexis is used a lot amidst the frequent utterance of swear words. The most common being “aye” as an alternative reply for “yes” predominantly amongst the northmen.
I could drone on and on about power, gender and quote numerous characters but the series would be nothing without its inspirations. Historical figures and events; the whole of season two (A Clash Of Kings) is a mirrored off The War Of The Roses. The last battle in that war was “The Battle Of Bosworth” in 1485 which ended in the brutal destruction of Richard III. Many say that Martin mirrored his personality and character for Stannis Baratheon. He wasn’t brutally killed at the end of Battle Of Blackwater Bay but he had a heavy casualty rate and was defeated. Half of his fleet was blown to smithereens by a medieval nuclear bomb AKA Wildfire (based on Greek Fire). It burnt half of his fleet and had the added bonus that it could burn on water.
In conclusion, Westeros is not so different from our world. Wasn’t Anglo-Saxon England once split into kingdoms? Mercia, Wessex, Sussex, Northumbria and what not. We look at these fictional lands as fiction and through the eyes of a person that could not possibly believe that fictional lands are not mirrored off our own. The more I look at works of fantasy literature, the more I see parallels. Martin himself said the structure of Westeros is based upon the land formation of Britain and Ireland. The Wall is based on Scotland’s Hadrian’s Wall and the renowned Red Wedding is mirrored off the Scottish Black Dinner (1440) and The Glencoe Massacre (1692). He has pulled historical events and characteristics from historical figures and embellished on them in his characters. The Ironborn, the Hill Tribes Of The Vale and House Greyjoy may have been based on the Vikings of Scandinavia. For an author to be able to do such thing is truly a remarkable achievement and have such a cult following is something to be immensely proud of.
There is no set winner. There is no right or wrong. There is what the characters perceive as right and wrong. The parallels with our world are in our faces and impossible to ignore. Game Of Thrones runs on power, betrayal, gender inequality, rape and incest. They are all themes and occurrences that happen in our world. Not only in The West but in the more deprived areas of our world too. George R.R Martin commented on the rape and violence in series by saying: